Made world-famous by the angry cartoon character “Taz”, the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, is actually a stocky nocturnal black-haired animal about the size of a squat bulldog. That makes it the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, with an appetite for carrion, reptiles and insects to match. The name was coined by European settlers who found the marsupial’s call, ranging from a low groan to a banshee screech, positively demonic.
Yet devils need all the friends they can get right now. Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFDT), a contagious cancer that is transmitted by saliva and causes fatal bulbous lesions, has spread across the state at around 15km a year since it was detected in northeast Tasmania in 1996. In the ensuing decade, there was a 95 percent decline in devil sightings. While geneticists race to map the twelve strains of the disease, the state’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Programme (w tassiedevil.com.au) is pinning hopes on breeding colonies such as Trowunna Wildlife Park and Devils@Cradle, as well as large disease-free enclosures in Tasmania and on the mainland. These programmes are the last line of defence for a top predator whose demise threatens to destabilize the entire Tasmanian ecosystem. The species went onto the “Endangered” list in 2010; not quite on the brink of extinction, perhaps, but close to the edge.